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Travel hacks for airline mileage plans and credit cards

  • Author: Scott McMurren
    | Alaska Travel
  • Updated: November 14, 2016
  • Published November 11, 2016

Have you flown somewhere just to get the miles? Did you sign up for a credit card just to get the extra points? Have you chosen a hotel just because they're part of a loyalty plan?

True confession: I've done all of these things. Welcome to the brave new world of travel hacking.

By hacking, I mean attempting to short-cut the usual process of getting travel goodies: upgrades, free trips and such. The deals and offers change all the time. But one thing remains constant: travel is a unique experience for each person. So the challenge is to find the right tools that help you fulfill your travel goals.

Here's a primer:

1. Get elite status with your airline or the "alliance" of your choice: If you live in Alaska, I recommend achieving "MVP" status on Alaska Airlines after flying at least 20,000 "elite qualifying miles." That's two round trips from Anchorage to Boston (7,860 miles each trip) and a trip from Anchorage to Los Angeles (4,788 miles). I mention those two cities because there are great fares available if you want to do some "mileage runs" between Thanksgiving and Christmas. From Anchorage to Boston, the fare on Alaska is as low as $400 round trip. To LA, the round trip fare is as low as $254.

My advice would be different if you lived in New York or Chicago. But I think Alaska's plan, which still keeps score on miles flown instead of dollars spent, is a better deal than plans offered through United, American or Delta.

As soon as you hit the MVP level on Alaska, the good seats start to open up. That includes the bulkhead and the exit row seats. You start earning 150 percent of your actual flight miles. And when you call on the phone, you're routed to the airline's "priority" line for quicker response.

Your elite status will help you on other airlines. For example, when I flew to Seattle on Delta, all I could find was a middle seat. But when I entered my Alaska Air mileage number, I was able to select an exit row seat because Delta is one of Alaska's partner airlines. That may change, though, as Alaska Airlines and Delta are involved in a turf war at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport. Elite-level Alaska Air fliers also get preferred treatment on American Airlines, Icelandair, Emirates and Hainan, among others.

2. Get the right plastic: The Alaska Airlines credit card, issued by Bank of America, includes 30,000 bonus miles after you spend $1,000. That's good for two in-state round-trip tickets. Never mind that you can accrue extra miles when shopping at Costco (one mile for each dollar spent). The annual coach companion fare (which costs between $122 and $160, depending on taxes) is one of my favorite features. There's a $75 annual fee.

Because of the higher bonus level (up from 25,000 miles), I've had as many as three of the cards. The companion passes and bonus miles really come in handy — and make up for the annual fee. Right now, I have two of the cards, but I know families that have four or five of the cards. I also know several business owners who charge gas and supplies on the card. They each have more than 1,000,000 miles in their accounts.

You should also shop around for a "flexible awards" card. There are two programs that I watch: Membership Rewards from American Express and Ultimate Rewards from Chase.

The advantage of a flexible awards card is that you can transfer your points from one program to another, depending on your specific need. You also can use the points to purchase travel through the credit card company's travel service.

The additional payoff with the flexible awards card is the sign-up bonus. For example, the Business Gold Rewards Card from American Express offers a 50,000-point bonus after you spend $5,000 in the first three months. There is a $175 annual free, which is waived for the first year. You can get triple miles on gas purchase or airline tickets, for example.

One of my favorite flexible award cards is the Chase Sapphire Preferred card. You'll get 50,000 bonus points after spending $4,000 in the first three months. I've had great luck moving points from Chase to my Hyatt Gold Passport account. It's a 1:1 transfer rate and it's instant. I have not had good luck using Chase points on IHG awards (Holiday Inn, Intercontinental Hotels, etc.). The one time I tried it for an airport hotel in Prague, it took too long for my point transfer to go through. In the meantime, I had to spend an extra 5,000 points to reserve the room.

3. Consider "stacking" the cards: This can double up the bonus points but remember, these deals change all the time. Recently, I applied for an American Express card through Starwood Preferred Guest, the loyalty program for Sheraton and Westin. I got a hefty bonus in exchange for spending $2,000 in three months. There is an annual fee of $95, which is waived for the first year. Then, I applied for a "business" SPG card. It had a higher minimum spend ($4,000), but they waived the fee and I got an extra 40,000 SPG bonus points. So, for the two cards, I got 80,000 points that are valid at Sheraton and Westin hotels around the world. Additionally, when you get the card, you'll also receive "gold" status for room upgrades.

I've also stacked Chase cards to double up on Chase Ultimate Rewards.

4. High-end cards: There are two cards that I'm watching. The first is the American Express Platinum Card and the Chase Sapphire Reserve Card. Both of these cards cost $450 per year. If you are a frequent traveler, it's worth it to dive into the details and see if it makes sense. Here's my take:

The American Express Platinum Card: As I mentioned last week, the card gives you access to Delta's SkyClubs (including the new club at Sea-Tac), provided you're traveling on Delta. Also, the Priority Pass membership that's included with the card gets you in to a bunch of other lounges. There's a $200 statement credit for the airline of your choice for fees (bag fees, change fees, etc.). Included is an instant "gold" status at Hilton Hotels with the HHonors program. You'll also get a 40,000 Membership Rewards bonus after spending $3,000 in three months. You'll earn five times the bonus miles on any airline tickets booked directly with the airline.

If you really want to go for the gold ring on American Express, there's the "Business Platinum" card, which offers up to 100,000 Membership Rewards. But you have to spend $15,000 in the first three months. The fee is the same: $450 per year.

Chase Sapphire Preferred: This is the one I'm leaning toward, since Chase is offering a 100,000-point bonus after spending $4,000 in the first three months. Benefits include priority pass membership, which includes admission to Alaska Air's Board Rooms. There's also a $300 airline credit each year. You'll earn three times the bonus on all dining expenditures.

Neither of these high-end cards will waive the first-year charges.

There are plenty of credit card offers out there, including some hotel card offers by Marriott, Hilton and Starwood.

Many of these strategies will help you accrue miles. But it's important to use them up quickly, since airlines (and credit card companies) continue to whittle the awards down. The three magic words in travel hacking: earn and burn.

Check out what others are saying in the world of travel hacking. Several resources give travelers the chance to learn about earning bonuses, special redemption sales and other offers. Here are some of my favorites:

Flyertalk forums: There are forums on credit cards, on travel hacking in general and on every single airline. You can find special "mileage run" deals or sign-up bonus links (flyertalk.com).

Travel Hacking Cartel: This site is run by one of my favorite travel gurus, Chris Guillebeau. It's a subscription service with a couple of different levels. Guillebeau visited every country in the world before his 35th birthday, and he knows a little bit about travel hacking (travelhacking.org).

– View from the Wing with Gary Leff: Gary likes credit cards and enjoys sharing his opinion on which ones work the best for frequent travelers (viewfromthewing.boardingarea.com).

Scott McMurren is an Anchorage-based marketing consultant, serving clients in the transportation, hospitality, media and specialty destination sectors, among others. Contact him by email at zoom907@me.com. You can follow him on Twitter (@alaskatravelGRM) and alaskatravelgram.com. For more information, visit alaskatravelgram.com/about.

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